U.S. Queen Bees Work Overtime to Save Hives

The farm economy just got a tiny boost: The number of honey-producing bee colonies in the U.S. has reached a 12-year high, according to the Agriculture Dept. That means the colony count is finally higher than at any time since Colony Collapse Disorder started to ravage the nation's hives.

Honey bees pollinate crops ranging from almonds to blueberries, and bee-pollinated fruit is found in products from Häagen-Dazs ice cream to General Mills (GIS) cereal. The government's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) estimates that pollinating by bees is worth $15 billion annually to the farming industry.

Colony Collapse Disorder, a syndrome that since 2006 has increased bee deaths during the winter months, threatens this agricultural niche. Although scientists suspect that some combination of viruses, parasites, pesticides, nutrition, and contaminated water are working together to weaken the colonies, no one has found a solution.

The number of bee colonies in the U.S. is down to about 2.6 million today, from 5 million in the 1940s, according to the ARS. Since it was first identified, the disorder has raised the late-year mortality rate from 15 percent to 20 percent of all hives to about a third.

There is a way to offset the scourge: Produce more bees than the disorder kills. This strategy depends on the queen bee, chosen for her reproductive role by the female workers, which are sterile. The workers feed the queen copious amounts of royal jelly secreted from their glands. The jelly transforms the queen-elect from a sterile female into a super-fertile creature that mates with the males of the hive and produces numerous progeny.

Until the onset of colony collapse, beekeepers had let the hives follow their natural habit of producing new bees in the spring and summer and going dormant in the fall and winter. Now beekeepers are breeding more bees in the summer and fall by dividing their hives. When the hives split, the worker bees nurture new queens and the population rises. That way, more bees survive colony collapse in the winter.

Researchers such as Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an entomologist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, see the current approach as a stopgap measure. "It's a sign the situation is still strange," he says. Entomologists would rather find a remedy to the scourge than run a perpetual race with it.

The bottom line: Although beekeepers are pumping up the number of honey bees, Colony Collapse Disorder still threatens $15 billion in agriculture.

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